Japanese Umbrella Pine Trees

A Japanese umbrella pine tree in a foundation bed next to a house.
David Beaulieu

Japanese umbrella pine trees are classified as Sciadopitys verticillata in plant taxonomy. This conifer is a needled evergreen, botanically speaking. If you are versed in the scientific names of plants at all, then you may realize that Sciadopitys verticillata is not a true pine, despite its common plant name. True pines have Pinus in their botanical names: for example, botanists call the eastern white pine Pinus strobus.

Plant Characteristics

As trees go, this will be a small one in your landscaping for quite some time, assuming you buy a young sapling. It is a slow grower. So even though it may eventually attain a height of 25 to 30 feet (although it grows considerably taller in its native habitat) with a spread of about 15 to 20 feet, expect it to remain a much smaller specimen for many years.

As it starts to get taller, it will assume a form that is pyramidal or "narrowly conical." How narrow a form, precisely, it does assume will depend on a number of factors, including whether or not you allow multiple trunks to form and whether you prune. Long-lived, it may outlive you and may put on much of its eventual height only during the life of the next homeowner who takes over from you.

The needles are thick, dark green, and glossy. They can attain a length of about five inches. Their color may change somewhat in the winter.

Just as the tree is a slow grower, so it will be slow to produce cones. If and when they do come, they will be two to four inches in length. On older trees, the bark will be reddish-brown and will peel. This so-called "exfoliating" bark can add to the display, given adequate visibility.

Planting Zones, Sun and Soil Requirements

Japanese umbrella pine trees are indigenous to Japan. According to PlantExplorers.com, it is "one of the five sacred trees from Japan's Kiso forest." In terms of the USDA map, they grow best in planting zones 5 through 8.

The growing recommendations for this tree are full sun and an evenly moist but well-drained soil. A loamy soil enriched with humus is probably the ideal. Regarding soil pH, it should be on the acidic side.

Uses in the Yard

Japanese umbrella pine trees are chiefly used as specimen plants. While they function well in that role year-round, they are especially effective when deciduous trees are bare; that is, as is often the case with evergreens, they are most appreciated for the visual interest in winter that they afford.

Given their origin, the plants are also valued by aficionados of Japanese gardens, both for landscaping purposes and to create bonsai.

Care

These novel specimens cannot be relied upon to withstand drought successfully, nor are they especially cold-hardy. This confines them to a somewhat tighter range than most trees. Japanese umbrella pines are similar to golden chain trees in this sense: they do not want it too hot, but they do not want it too cold, either.

What does this mean regarding care? Well, first of all, at the warmer end of their range, make sure that they are well watered; you may even wish to give them a little afternoon shade. At the cooler extreme of their range, they may suffer winter burn, so locate them in sheltered locations (where they will not be exposed to the worst of the winds) or consider providing them with winter protection via a shelter or by wrapping in burlap. Regarding such winter protection, however, there are two drawbacks:

  1. You obscure the view, thereby robbing the plant of winter interest.
  2. It will work only while the tree is still short since covering taller specimens will not be feasible.

Origin of the Names

The specific epithet, verticillata in the botanical name, Sciadopitys verticillata means "whorled," referring to the arrangement of its needles. That same arrangement gives the plant its common name. The whorls of needles reminded the plant's namer of the ribs on an umbrella. Verticillata is found in various other plant names, including Ilex verticillata, which is the holly commonly named "winterberry."

Sciadopitys verticillata is different from the Italian umbrella pine (Pinus pinea). If you remember their respective botanical names, you will never confuse them: the latter's name has "pine" written all over it, while the former is not a true pine at all.